MANCHESTER, NH, N.H., June 30, 2015 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- I've spent a decade entirely broke, published by small presses, read by no one," Joshua Cohen told The New York Times in a June 12th interview. The occasion was the imminent publication by a very large press—Random House—of his new novel, "Book of Numbers." This is a story, wrote the Times' Alexandra Alter, "which some have compared to sweeping works by David Foster Wallace and [Thomas] Pynchon."
A week later, Cohen was at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in New Hampshire's White Mountains. There he was the guest writer at the summer residency of Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program.
Standing diffidently at a podium before eighty-some students and faculty, he gave a craft talk on the radical obliqueness of the first-person narrator of Marcel Proust's novels. The next day he read the first several pages of "Book of Numbers." "This is the first time I've read from this," Cohen said. "And my first chance to see how bad it is."
His audience found that this novel's first-person narrator could hardly be less oblique, at least at first glance. The narrator positions himself center-stage and his name is Joshua Cohen—a struggling writer whose sure-fire breakthrough novel about the Holocaust, published on September 11, 2001, is eclipsed by the holocaust at the Twin Towers, and goes unnoticed. This compels that Cohen to take a job ghost-writing the autobiography of the eccentric founding genius of Tetration, an unrivaled Internet company not unlike Google. This man, as it happens, is also named Joshua Cohen.
The flesh-and-blood author who created these alter egos has indeed been previously published only by small presses. And if, like many small-press books, these works have failed to gain a wide readership, they have by no means gone unread and unnoticed.
Cohen's previous novel, "Witz," published by the Dalkey Archives Press, was named a Best Book of 2010 by the Village Voice and praised by The New York Times as "a brave and artful attempt to explore and explode the limits of the sentence." The story collection "Four New Messages" (Graywolf Press) was a New Yorker Best Book of 2012. "A revelation," said the New Yorker's James Wood.
Cohen has also published two other novels besides these, three other collections of short stories, and essays in Harper's, The New York Times, the Denver Quarterly, The Believer, the London Review of Books, and many other venues. This is a writer, noted James Wood, who has "already published more books, and surely more pages, than many writers in their fifties."
At 580 pages, "Book of Numbers" is a sweeping and generous addition to that page count. And his Southern New Hampshire University audience found it to be not bad at all. In fact, "Book of Numbers" may well prove to be the widely read breakthrough novel that the fictional Joshua Cohen (one of them, anyway) was denied by history.
"Alive with talk and dense with data, Joshua Cohen's novel 'Book of Numbers' reads as if Philip Roth's work were fired into David Foster Wallace's inside the Hadron particle collider," wrote Dwight Garner in his review in The New York Times. "The result is a mess, a debris field, an insult to the sublime. Yet the splintered intellection hums with the static of the cosmos. 'Book of Numbers,' in its fractured way, is more impressive than all but a few novels published so far this decade. Mr. Cohen, all of 34, emerges as a major American writer."
There is a line in "Witz" about the necessity for writers to "keep inventing maniacally to keep up with the real," and "Book of Numbers" accomplishes that. Years ago, Cohen shared his manuscript with a friend who is a cyber security expert, and Cohen was warned that a plot twist based on Tetration sharing customer search-engine histories with government intelligence agencies might be far-fetched. Then came Edward J. Snowden's revelations in 2013. "The world made this book true while I was writing it," said Cohen, "which of course is the paranoid's greatest fantasy."
Meanwhile the question of identity, the hard edges that define who a person is and is not (and also who threatens him), have softened and grown murky in the data fog that is the Internet, and this is the case as well in "Book of Numbers," which the Washington Post has dubbed the Internet Age's "creation myth. " There Joshua-Cohen-the-scuffling-writer must essentially erase his identity, and become quite oblique, in order to create a public identity for Joshua-Cohen-the-mighty-technocrat.
So as of today, who is the real Joshua Cohen? In the author's opinion, he is someone not quite ready to answer to the mighty "major American writer" label The New York Times has pinned on him. "I've been unknown before," Cohen said, "and I'll be unknown again."
Who knows how long Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes last now in the relativity of the Internet Age? Fellow novelist/essayist Benjamin Nugent, the director of SNHU's MFA program, thinks Cohen might. "A writer who shows better than anyone I know the changes worked upon our language by our new habits and new devices," he said in calling the author, amid great applause, to the podium at that residency.
Slowly, perhaps reluctantly, Joshua Cohen stepped to center stage and began.
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